They may have eyes the color
of mirrors that stare with the steadiness
of glass. They may have porous bodies
like ponds in rain, like the diaphanous
wings of dragonflies in sun. They may have
tails indistinguishable from the skeletal
blades of dead grasses, move on feet
as quiet and precise as cobwebs.
That’s the fourth of seven stanzas in a poem by Pattiann Rogers entitled “A Mystic in the Garden Mistakes Lizards for Ghosts and Extrapolates on Same,” from her recent book, Generations, which I am re-reading for the first time. Isn’t it marvellous? What impresses me here as a writer is the way she uses imagery from nature to describe things that are themselves natural (though the narrator imagines it otherwise). The usual rhetorical strategy in contemporary, image-driven poetry is to try and highlight the strangeness of a thing in one realm, natural or human, by comparing it to something in the other — see, for example, the opening lines of yesterday’s poem at Poetry Daily. But in this stanza, as so often in Rogers’ work, the similes are all intramural.
This is something I’ve been wanting to do more of myself for some time, so I’m happy to have found a model. Last week, I was enthusing about Pattiann Rogers to some friends via email, and said I felt as if had graduated from Mary Oliver and John Haines and entered advanced studies. I hasten to add that that’s not meant as any kind of objective evaluation; all three are brilliant poets, very different each from the other, and it would be absurd to try and rank them. I am simply saying that for me, right now, this poet, this book is what I need to read. I’m sure I have plenty more to learn from Oliver and Haines, too — but not now, when the mental excrescences formed by my too-frequent readings of their works largely prevent me from seeing them in a new light. Writing teachers are fond of advising beginning poets to let their work ferment in a bottom drawer for a few months before revisiting it; why should a reader’s approach to poems be any different?
“When the student is ready, the master appears” — so goes the saying. I’ve apprenticed myself to many masters over the years; Rogers is simply the latest. I’m not too good at the art of literary criticism, which is why I so seldom engage in it here, but one other thing that really impresses me is the way Generations advances an argument, or series of related arguments, in a very subtle way that doesn’t dominate the collection, but simply provides a connective string for those who choose to read the poems in order. I like thematically unified collections in general, but I also like the freedom to read poems at random and not feel completely lost. With Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, for example — surely one of the greatest books of poetry in English written in the last three decades — if you don’t start from the beginning, you’re not going to understand who is speaking when and where all the anguish is coming from.
“A Mystic in the Garden Mistakes Lizards for Ghosts and Extrapolates on Same”: I’ll admit the title made me raise an eyebrow at first. In my own poetry, with the exception of the recent Public Poems and Odes to Tools series, the title is almost always the last thing I write, and I like titles that are reasonably brief and as allusive as possible: “Generations,” for example. That’s obviously not an uncommon preference among contemporary poets (I’m such a conformist). But quite often, as here, Pattiann Rogers turns her titles into a kind of stage direction. If I’d written this poem, my focus would have been on the slow discovery of who the narrator is and the way her perceptions don’t quite jibe with reality. It would have been all about that revelation. And I dare say that would’ve been how an Oliver or a Haines would have approached the subject, as well. One can also imagine a more urbane poet — a May Swenson or Charles Wright, say — dwelling on the mystic’s mistake, and one can be reasonably sure that all of these poets would have used the third person narrator to establish ironic distance.
After the title, though, this poem is able to dispense with irony and delve more deeply into the nature of perception and revelation. We are led to wonder how it is that clearly erroneous beliefs can lead sometimes to profound understanding. After speculating on the sort of ghostly, “eternally vanishing” god that the ghosts must worship, the poem concludes:
The ghosts of this garden are like
the emptiness of pods and husks
under midnight snow when the moon
has passed, like the pause following
the clank and lock of the gate
at dusk, like the inevitable in motion
beyond the cosmic horizon. Strange,
what void these ghosts would leave
should the garden ever be without them.
And the environmentalist in me nods emphatic assent.